Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day star Bill Murray opens up about batting with his emotions and turning his back on Hollywood
Approaching 65, Bill Murray has become one of comedy’s elder statesmen. With his hang-dog expression and trademark deadpan comic style, there are few actors quite as recognisable or beloved by the movie-going public.
Over the years, many people who have worked with Murray have described him as being a melancholy person – a persona he has arguably played up to with his choice of roles.
But not that he feels this is necessarily negative: “I don’t think melancholy is a bad thing. It’s sort of an adult emotion that you get when you realize that the way you see the world and the way you want it to be, isn’t necessarily the way it is. It’s a space in between the ideal and the reality, that’s where the real suffering is. I kinda like feeling sad and I think it’s OK to have emotion.”
Growing up as one of nine kids
Murray says his outlook on life is not all darkness. “I see a lot of the beauty and good things that are out there, I'm not miserable and moping around the house all day worrying about man's battle against a dark universe.
“But I think we have to fight a bit to come up with the right answers and see the light that's out there and have some faith in the world. It's hard, though. But ‘melancholy’ is nicer than ‘depressed’.”
Murray says he thinks this attitude was a result of his childhood, growing up as one of nine siblings in a Catholic family in Chicago. “It wasn’t easy growing up. There were a lot of kids and there wasn’t a lot of money – I came from a giant family. Our house was a wreck, a constant claustrophobic mess.
“Looking back you think, ‘Wow, that must have been really hard,’ but at the time you don’t see it as hard, you see it as, ‘This is my life, I’m just going to do the best I can with it’.”
Despite his misgivings about growing up in such a large family, Murray has six children of his own. “I can’t deny that I like this feeling of all these people around, I got used to it,” he says.
There is the advantage that parenting gets easier both with practice and with more pairs of hands to help out. “One [child] is the worst, the hardest I think. But with two then there’s someone to play with. That sort of works with the six; they do take care of each other and the older ones would often play with the littler ones.”
Divorced twice, Murray is currently single, which he says allows him to concentrate on “taking care of myself right now and figuring things out”.
“When I look at myself, sometimes I don't always see someone I like and that I'm not as good or wonderful as I would like to be,” he says. “But I like being with my children and making sure their lives are happy and that I can be there for them and help them find what they're looking for. That's really satisfying for me.”
Having a hard time coping with success
Murray is arguably one of the greatest comedy performers of his generation. He cut his teeth as part of improv comedy troupe The Second City in Chicago, before going on (like many other Second City members, including Ghostbusters co-star Dan Aykroyd, The Blues Brothers' John Belushi, Seinfeld's Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Wayne's World / Austin Powers' Mike Myers) to graduate to Saturday Night Live.
“Del Close – who was my teacher at Second City – was incredibly gracious to your talent and always tried to further it. He got people to perform beyond their expectations. He taught people to commit. You've gotta go out there and improvise and you've gotta be completely unafraid to die [on stage].
You've got to be able to take a chance to die, and you have to die lots,” says Murray.
Ghostbusters was such a big experience for me. It was more than I could handle. I had to leave town.
Playing wisecracking, ironic para-psychologist Dr Peter Venkman in 1984’s Ghostbusters turned Murray into a Hollywood superstar and changed his life – although fame did not sit entirely comfortably.
Murray says filming Ghostbusters was a lot of fun. “We didn't take [it] so seriously. We used to do them for fun and because we liked the work. Working with that group, these were all just people you'd love to be trapped with for a couple months. True hilarity all the time. You could feel free to try anything you wanted to do and perform for each other. And when you do that, it's a gas.”
But dealing with the unexpected success that came on the back of it – it was the highest-grossing film of 1984 – proved a challenge.
“Ghostbusters paid for my children's college education. They were able to flunk out much earlier than they would have if they had to pay their own way,” he deadpans. “But it was such a big experience for me. It was more than I could handle. I had to leave town, move away, and get out of the country.”
Playing hard to get
Recent years have seen Murray’s work turn away from blockbusters and into more indie-oriented films, such as his collaborations with director Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Grand Budapest Hotel) and the Oscar-nominated Lost in Translation with Sofia Coppola.
“I had success in the past doing comedies and one kind of acting, and you worry about whether you can continue having the same level of success and have the same appeal to the public doing other kinds of work,” he says.
“So I was searching for a way to take my work to a different level and be happy with that choice. A few decades ago I asked myself, ‘Do I want to be a big movie star?’ and I decided I didn't.
“I decided I wanted to live my life and see what happens, and at the same time to take on jobs that don't necessarily pay the huge amounts of money you can earn by making certain kinds of films, but which let you work with interesting directors.”
This approach extends to the process of getting directors to pitch him projects. Murray doesn't have an agent and takes offers of work via voicemails left on a private phone number that only a select few people know, and which he doesn’t check very often.
Directors often have to wait months to hear back from him. But Murray says a good script is harder to get hold of than he is.
“I decided at one point in my life that I was fed up with answering the phone and dealing with a lot of rubbish. It became unmanageable for me and once I created some distance between
me and the industry my life became better and I didn't feel the pressure to work anymore. If people want me to do a film they have to work a little harder to reach me but usually they find a way,” he says.
Having the luxury to pick and choose work has given Murray a kind of peace. “I'd rather live my life out of the glare of the spotlight doing the kind of little films I want to do than making big studio films that keep your name constantly in the public eye. I learnt while I was at Second City that there's a lot of honour and nobility in being able to turn down work. You don't have to take the dog food commercial if you don't want to.”
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Retiresavvy is brought to you by Skipton Building Society. The interview in this article was supplied by InterviewHub. This article has been commissioned by retiresavvy and any opinions voiced are the author's own.